Boots Riley: Why I am voting for Bernie Sanders

Boots Riley speaking at a protest

I have never voted for a candidate in my life.

But I will be voting for Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary and the general election. If I’m doing that, there are probably tens of millions in that same position.

Let me explain why I’m doing this now.

I have spoken out many times over the years about the dangers that electoral politics hold for mass movements — reducing involvement to this one moment, this one person, and making it unclear to masses of people that power under capitalism comes at the point of exploitation.

That politicians are beholden to the ruling class — not simply due to campaign financing (although that’s part of it), but that they are beholden to those who wield power through control of the economy — by taking the wealth that we create with our labour and controlling industry, controlling markets.

That elections often leave people feeling disempowered — if their candidate wins, people take a “let’s wait and see” attitude. If their candidate loses, people either wait or organise for the next election. Never creating a mass movement at the point of contradiction under capitalism, which would mean organising on the job in a way that could withhold labour collectively and shut down industry when necessary.

I believe that we need a world in which the people democratically control the wealth that we create with our labour. This would be real, actual power in the hands of the people — actual “democracy”. You can call that communism, you can call it socialism, you can call it pancakes. I don’t give a fuck what you call it, but that’s the world that we need.

Right now, we have a new era in the movements we see growing in the United States. Several polls over the last few years —  Gallup polls, university polls, polls by right-wing think tanks — have consistently shown that 51% of millennials would prefer socialism and 43% of all age demographics in the US would prefer socialism. If you account for the folks that wouldn’t say that to a stranger on the phone, I’d bet that those numbers are higher.

Over the past 20 years, we have seen things like the anti-Iraq War movement, which mobilised millions of people onto the streets all over the world, but was unable to stop the war. We learned that power cannot be simply shamed into capitulating to the demands of the people.

Occupy, Black Lives Matter

We have seen the Occupy Movement come along and surprise everyone. In every town and city in the US, there was an Occupy encampment that put forward the closest thing to a class analysis we had seen in the mass media: the 1% versus the 99%.

Studies showed that before Occupy, mainstream news had only dared utter the word “capitalism” less than a handful of times in the 20 years before. After that, for at least a short period of time, it was being uttered several times a day. Although the encampments were a small percentage of the population of each town, there was a large percentage who saw the encampments and agreed, even if they wouldn’t or couldn’t go there themselves.

Occupy Oakland was started by dedicated radicals who understood the spectacle that was happening and wanted to further radicalise it. So a one-day general strike was called, which also shut down the ports — as a symbol of where power lies under capitalism. 50,000 people — organised by nurses, longshoremen, teachers, students, transit workers and others involved in Occupy — came out and shut things down.

We have also seen the Black Lives Matter movement grow and valiantly respond to the epidemic of cops killing Black folks and also learning that the people that make the decisions governing our lives don’t change their actions simply because they know that the community is upset.

We must have movements with teeth. Ones that are able to force the hands of power.

Worker militancy

Over the past few years we have seen a sharp rise in people organising on the job. I don’t mean just the traditional labour unions — although those unions are growing faster and some are becoming more militant than they have been before (largely driven by their ever-more radical rank-and-file).

I am also talking about everything from previously unorganised retail workers, baristas, ride-share workers, grad student workers, farm workers, fast food workers, theatre workers, tech workers and more.

We have seen wildcat strikes in places the media told us were too right-wing and anti-union, like the very militant West Virginia teachers wildcat strike. And things like the Chicago, Los Angeles and Oakland teachers’ strikes — militant strikes which were welcomed with open arms by their communities.

Some of the militancy is becoming more radical in some instances, with folks striking in solidarity with each other — like when Wayfair furniture workers went on strike last year to stop Wayfair from working with ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] and their detention centres. And the workers won.

Or, when grad students, in many instances across the US, went on strike in solidarity with custodial staff. Or, when 20,000 Google workers did rolling work-stoppage walkouts to have management address many issues, including sexual harassment.

People are looking for ways to exact power over their own lives. More and more they are realising that in order to do that we need a mass, militant, radical labour movement that can collectively withhold labour as a tool — not only for higher wages and benefits — but as a tool for larger social justice issues as well

What would have happened if radicals had been organising a labour movement for the decade prior to Mike Brown’s murder and a general or even targeted strike happened? Indictment, real quick.

People are realising that this sort of a movement will need to break the current labour laws, such as Taft-Hartley, that prohibit solidarity strikes. This will take radical leadership.

Class struggle

In order to get some of the reforms that Bernie Sanders’ campaign platform calls for — Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, free university and trade school tuition, building 10 million more homes in an effort to address homelessness — it’s going to take movement tactics.

We are going to have to have strategic, targeted and general strikes to force the hand of the folks who have some of these politicians in their pockets.

Imagine BART [Bay Area Rapid Transit] and AC Transit [public transport] workers striking until [Democratic Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy] Pelosi commits to Medicare for All. Or, West Virginia teachers striking to force the vote of [Democratic Senator] Joe Manchin.

If we have a movement that can shut down industries through the withholding of labour, we can make politicians do what we want. We are going to need radicals to get us there.

I am not voting for Bernie because I don’t disagree with him on things (Venezuela, for instance). Nor do I believe that the reforms he proposes will be the socialist world that we need.

What I am endorsing is the movement that has grown around him that involves millions of people who are willing to consciously and openly engage in class struggle to make these reforms happen.

These struggles will radicalise millions of people and have the potential to organise the working class in the US to a point we haven’t seen before. We keep going from there.

[Boots Riley is a US rapper, producer, screenwriter, film director and activist from Oakland, California. He is the lead vocalist of The Coup and Street Sweeper Social Club. He wrote and directed the 2018 film, Sorry to Bother You.]

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